Immortality as Syntax Error
The ‘mind’ is not an inhabitant of part of the body, but is one particular way of describing certain behaviours of that body; consciousness is a pattern of standing waves across the entire brain, an emergent function of the complexity of electrical phenomena; emotions are the subjective experience of changes in neurochemistry; and decisions to act are not the causes of bodily actions, but precede them and are therefore illusory effects thereof. When this has been thoroughly understood, we have no choice but to question most of our natural language about death.
Human languages tend to be based on a grammatical subject, to which are attached predicates. And, in defiance of all logic, existence itself is treated as such a predicate. Ibn Rushd saw over eight hundred years ago that the distinction between essence and existence belongs only to thought. In the world, we have either an essence which exists, or else nothing. In our own tradition, Kant may have disposed of this error, but it lives on in the natural language from which it sprung. That is, ‘Paul exists’ is universally treated as the same kind of statement as ‘Paul is bald’; we speak of existing as something that a subject does, as if it could do something else if it felt so inclined. This forces us to ask the question: when something does not exist, what is it doing instead of existing? Because our languages allow us to speak about this ‘it’ that does not exist, then we feel that there must necessarily be an ‘it’ to speak about; and if this ‘it’ does not exist, well, it must take some other form in order to be spoken about. In the very act of saying, ‘flying horses do not exist’, we are naming ‘winged horses’ and making them a subject to which the predicate of non-existence is then attached. In so doing, we cannot help but feel that the winged horses are somehow out there; we feel that they are existing in some manner that can tolerate having their existence denied. One foolish philosopher thought he could accommodate such null entities merely by saying that they ‘subsisted’ instead of ‘existed’.
So, too, when a person has died. In the sentence ‘John Brown is dead’, we begin with the subject John Brown and then proceed to say something about him, in flagrant violation of Non-entis nulla sunt predicata; but once we start to say something about him, we cannot help but feel that there must be a John Brown about which this thing can be said. If we say that ‘John Brown is dead’, in the present tense, as opposed to ‘there was once a man called John Brown’, our language obliges us to feel that he must be in some other state of being, so that things can validly be said about him in that state. As with the winged horses, in the very act of saying ‘John Brown is dead’ – or even the apparently more accurate ‘John Brown is no more’ – we are naming him and so alleging that he is somehow out there and thus in a position to have his living existence denied. And once we start attaching predicates to him with a present verb, then the way is open to attaching a whole bunch of other predicates as well. So then we find ourselves asking after his state of mind there where he is, being dead, and thus the whole nine yards of heaven and hell.
In an ancient philosophical terminology we might speak of the error of conceiving of John Brown as a substance rather than an accident – that is, a property of a substance. Another way out was demonstrated nearly a century ago by Russell and Whitehead, but it has no means penetrated the popular mind and probably never will. They made existential statements in a manner different from beginning with the subject and then attaching a predicate to it, that is, they refrained from saying whether the subject does or does not exist. Instead, they began with the existential state itself and linked this to a portfolio of qualities that might or might not be applicable. And to prevent unwanted implications creeping back in, they did not express this existential state in words, but by a symbol, the existential modifier. It looked like a backwards capital E; it was negated by placing a tilde in front. This existential modifier was then applied to an ‘x’, thus asserting that ‘x’ existed, so far with no properties, and the properties of ‘x’ were then listed. Instead of ‘winged horses do not exist’, they would write symbolic notation to the effect that ‘(Not-exists) any x, when x is a horse and x is winged’. We can treat ‘John Brown is dead’ in the same way: ‘(Not-exists) any x, when x is an animal, x is living, x is named John Brown’ and so on down the list of Johnbrownian properties. In this formal language, tendentious questions such as ‘What is John Brown doing now that he’s dead?’ cannot even be asked.
Another way to avoid the quicksand of the subject-predicate formation is to cease and desist from thinking of a person as a thing, a noun or even a subject. Instead, we should think of a person as a property, a process or a verb. Where does the melting go after all the snow has finished melting? Or, as Fan Zhen asked, what happens to the sharpness of a knife after the knife has been cast into a furnace? These are silly questions, because ‘sharpness’ and ‘melting’ are not themselves things, but in one case a property of another thing and in the other case a process that a thing is undergoing. Properties do not wander about by themselves and processes cannot be separated from the thing that is undergoing them. When John Brown dies, therefore, we can say that a certain physical system no longer exhibits a certain property, namely the consciousness that we call ‘John Brown’. People have claimed that a thing called the ‘soul’ is indissoluble and so cannot perish, but a process cannot be indissoluble. So we may also say that a certain process, resulting in behaviour that we shorthand as ‘John Brown’, has now terminated. The program is no longer running.
We ought therefore to invent a new vernacular, and say that that the physical system, the body, no longer has the property of Johnbrowning, or that there is no longer any Johnbrowning going on, or more simply that it has ceased to Johnbrown. The question whether it is still Johnbrowning after it has ceased to Johnbrown, and the question where it is presently Johnbrowning now that it has ceased to Johnbrown, are both self-evidently meaningless and stupid enquiries. No people who spoke my verbal language could be persuaded to give money to a priesthood in order to assure themselves of a happy Johnbrowning after it had ceased to Johnbrown.
In: Religion and Conceptual Muddle, THE LONGEST CON